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Cut out the noise

Learn to communicate effectively

Few will disagree that communication is a cornerstone of instruction. In fact, the Aviation Instructor's Handbook (FAA-H-8083-9) devotes an entire chapter to this subject. However, even the best communication systems are useless when they succumb to noise.

Any influence that degrades communication is noise. A broken headset plug can disrupt a signal. Two radios transmitting simultaneously on the same frequency create noise. These types of noise are easy to deal with, since you can repair a plug or listen before transmitting. But there are more subtle types of noise that insidiously creep into our messages and disrupt learning. They are more difficult to identify, and therefore more difficult to correct.

One major noise-generator is language itself, whether spoken, written, or conveyed through body language. Your choice of words while instructing can lead to misunderstanding, since the same words may create different images or impressions for different people. The words may be right for you, but they may not be right for your student.

One reason for this possible confusion is that words have two sets of meanings: denotation and connotation. Denotation is the specific meaning of a word, and connotation is an implied meaning, not specifically stated.

You'd think a word's denotation would be relatively straightforward, but words sometimes have multiple denotations. For example, Webster's Dictionary has 57 definitions for the word "time," and 27 definitions for the word "spring." Some words are spelled differently and mean different things, but are pronounced the same, such as reed and read, or red and read. Sometimes, individuals think they understand the meaning of a word but in fact don't, such as when defining a stall as insufficient airspeed to keep the engine turning.

Connotations affect understanding and communication in a very complex way, evoking images or thoughts of previous experiences that may be totally irrelevant to flight. Unlike denotation, connotation is reading between the lines. For example, snow has many possible pleasant connotations, including skiing, sledding, snowmen, ice skating, snowboarding, and the like. At the other end of the spectrum, snow may bring to mind freezing while shoveling a driveway, or putting chains on the tires, or being unable to get home to family for a holiday. And it may bring all of these memories to the same person. A single word can do all this.

Some words, as perceived by the listener, suggest personality characteristics that will either enhance communication or create noise. Studies have shown that if you're expecting a certain characteristic in a person, it will show up, regardless of how small. This means that if you have a favorable impression of your student, you'll only see progress and competency. If you have a negative impression, you'll only see mistakes. Conversely, a student will accept anything you say if he or she has a good impression of you, yet will doubt everything if his or her impression is unfavorable.

An individual's perceptions of the world can create communication noise. For instance, our culture places a great emphasis on occupations. What's the difference between a chef and a cook? Both do the same thing, but to many people they are two completely different professions. What about a fighter pilot or airline captain or flight instructor? All three fly aircraft, but is your image of each the same? In fact, one person could be all three.

Popular opinion holds that scientists are good pilot material, but artists are not. Images like these are based on bias, and biases are communication noise. Study after study has shown that a teacher who expects a student to do poorly will not teach him the same way as a teacher who expects him to do well.

Another effective communication device is body language, either open or closed. Open behaviors, which usually indicate you're "getting through," include hand touching, moving toward an individual, smiling, facing an individual, agreeable head nodding, tilting the head when talking or listening, etc. Closed behaviors include stares or sneers, moving away, cleaning fingernails, looking at the ceiling, not facing an individual, and the like. If you're getting negative feedback from body language, it's time to change your approach.

Faces send messages, hence the expression "written all over his face." Often "eyes light up" when you're happy to see someone. Arms are also important, with folded arms usually signifying "I'm not listening, and I don't care." Hands on hips coupled with a stare or frown often indicates arrogance or condescension. The way you sit is also important. Sitting directly across from your student implies a very structured environment, while sitting at right angles implies a more casual situation. Use whichever seems more appropriate.

To be an effective instructor, you must identify communication barriers and knock them down. You're the expert in communication and teaching, not your student, and it's up to you to resolve problems by eliminating communication barriers.

Most bookstores have entire sections filled with titles on effective communication. Other communication improvement resources include community groups that offer courses in communication and speech, such as Toastmasters, local colleges, or a learning exchange. Communication can be a challenge, and so is instructing. Meet the challenge. Learn to communicate effectively, and be a better instructor.

Jeff Falkner is an aviation training consultant and instructional media developer who teaches aeronautics at Sacramento City College. He has more than 9,000 hours of Air Force, air carrier, and general aviation flying time.

By Jeff Falkner

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